Simon McWilliams focuses on Belfast's architectural rebirth in his first show in the city for two decades
Simon McWilliams’ new exhibition of oil paintings – his first solo show in his native Belfast in almost two decades – features urban structures, high-rise buildings with scaffolding, swirling motorways, and the interior of what looks a lot like the palm house at Botanic Gardens.
Thick impasto oil paint on red buildings that make them scream urgently from the canvas, and quieter moments of sunflower yellow architecture swathed in green netting, rising from the ground as a testament to human labour and sweat. This is the urban jungle in a riot of colour, neon pinks and midnight blue, fire engine red, vibrant primary colours given a fluorescent inversion.
Here, people are mostly absent or tiny and insignificant, as infrastructure and buildings are brought into focus, city views of roads and scaffold-laden new structures given new life through the dynamism of the brushwork and the boldness of the palette.
‘Restoration Dust’ is perhaps my favourite piece and shows a hot pink old building – it might be Victorian in style – being worked on, scaffolded, plumes of dust emerging where the act of recovering is going on, the sky above an untroubled, optimistic blue. Builders in fluoro yellow are dotted about, insignificant next to the structure they labour on.
There is something hugely positive about the act of building and of restoration of the old, acts of creation and mending at the opposite extreme to destruction. Belfast has seen much destruction, and now post-conflict, it is all restoration: new buildings, new infrastructure, brighter lights.
In another painting, leaves in a hot-house are built up in thick, mottled layers of green oils, so that they almost emerge from the canvas, and elsewhere thinly painted structures are finally layered into red or yellow-orange impasto.
This is perhaps suggestive of either a frustration with the limits of the structure and with the lines of conurbation and brickwork, or an impressionistic desire to fire these structures with painterly emotion, the oils becoming expressive of something beyond representation.
Some of this work recalls the composition and design favoured by David Hockney, and both Matisse and Picasso are obvious influences on McWilliams’ chosen palette; the artist has also cited Edouard Vuillard and Frank Auerbach – the latter for his physical use of paint – as inspirations for his work, which has been exhibited in London, Ireland and America.
Most compelling, perhaps, is the energetic way in which McWilliams – a graduate of the University of Ulster and the Royal Academy of Art in London – works the paint, allowing its layers to become expressive of a mood. Through the imaginative, neon-tinged use of colour, he transfigures structures that could seem dull in their original hues.
Here they are illuminated, given a serious colour pop, the intricacies of their architecture discovered as feats of human endeavour and imagination. There is a sci-fi vibe to this urban focus, but this is not pressed so far as to become centrally important – McWilliams' is not quite a futuristic vision worthy of JG Ballard or the dystopian future of the Matrix. This is the world we know only re-pixillated, rebooted in colour.
One might argue that it is hard to emote or be excited by so many oil paintings of roads, buildings, structures-in-progress, no matter how colour-bright. Is there really enough narrative or subtext to the vision here to make it linger in the mind afterwards, one might ask?
McWilliams’ work is certainly very beautiful and hugely marketable, but not likely to challenge perception further than making the viewer think that perhaps there is beauty in motorways and scaffolding if he or she looks hard enough – and this has been done before.
But it all depends on what you feel art’s function is, really. For many, something that looks great on a wall is enough. For others, deeper, or less subtle, thematic engagement and conceptual exploration are paramount.
McWilliams is an exquisite painter but, for this reviewer, it would be more interesting to see his talents focused on more figurative work and on deeper themes than infrastructure and buildings-in-progress. But perhaps this focus is in itself a comment on the post-modern condition and how man’s former centrality has been supplanted by technologies, architecture and vast concrete spaces devoid of aesthetic pull.
Abstract Armature runs at the Naughton Gallery, Queen’s University Belfast, until May 18.